Thursday, February 2, 2012

An open letter to the Internet's critics-in-disguise:

What follows is my opinion only, and is not fact.

I love AWARDS DAILY and IN CONTENTION, and I love Tom O'Neil's THE ENVELOPE as well. I'm slightly bewitched by AWARDS DAILY host, the totally wild and passionate Sasha Stone (pictured above, and a person I would like to talk to sometime, 'cuz she seems like she'd be a great conversationalist). I think AD's intelligent and caring Ryan Adams is a great guy, too. Tough IN CONTENTION dude Kris Tapley and I have had disagreements--I think I'm still barred from commenting on his site, after a nasty Pauline Kael-related insult on my part (Tapley has lots of low opinions of Kael, to which I vehemently objected). But I read him often (and, most religiously, I pay attention to IC's resolutely sharp Guy Lodge). And I always admire Tom O'Neil's level-headed, journalistic, slightly-square but quite opinionated work for the L.A. Times' ENVELOPE. But I do often find myself questioning the notion that many of these treasured commenters (at least two of whom will swear up and down that they're not critics) are on a Quixotic quest to change Oscar voters' mode of thinking. In a way, I think AWARDS DAILY and, to a lesser extent, IN CONTENTION are somewhat ageist and anti-history (I know this will irritate alla them). However, before anyone flies off the handle, please let me explain...and let me assure them all they ain't gonna change the Academy in their lifetime, or in the next...

For me, primarily the AWARDS DAILY site this year (matching much of the movie-centric blogosphere) has been all about DRIVE, SHAME, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, HARRY POTTER, HUGO, and (strangely, as of late) THE HELP. I come to AWARDS DAILY, in particular, every day, so I should know (as all other AD fans should know, too). But I have long found myself wondering about the love towards all these movies, as portrayed there. So I must address each (by the way, I find it interesting that it's very difficult to locate each site's original first-look reviews of each film; it makes it hard to verify what they really thought, or what I thought they thought):

Let’s eliminate HARRY POTTER outright; critics and box office be damned, there was no way that the Oscars were going to nominate the second half of the seventh installment of a film series as Best Picture. Give it up, okay? TOY STORY 3 just last year became the first Best Picture nominee to be honored without its predecessors being so honored--and that happened only because there were a newly freaky 10 nominees. Onward.

I see the love for DRIVE being as similar a type of adoration for a bygone movie era as THE ARTIST is slammed for being. The only difference is that DRIVE comes closer to intersecting the lives of many on the Internet; it's a shiny 80s throwback piece, and that makes it instantly cool for a certain crowd, regardless of what the movie actually contains (and that final caveat tells you what I think of DRIVE, which I have to say I consider a barely-disguised remake of an underrated 1978 Walter Hill bomb called THE DRIVER).

Meanwhile, I see the love of SHAME as being a stand-in show of support for the type of sex-frown filmmaking that another 80s achiever, David Lynch, does best. The only problem is that David Lynch didn't direct SHAME (whoa, whould HE have made the film better). Fassbender and Mulligan are both terrific in the movie, but the film itself is clunky from the get-go. It's THE LOST WEEKEND all over again, with screwing as the addiction (actually, Wilder‘s 1945 movie is much more daring and, as it came at the height of alcoholism, much more relevant and edgy for its time). I love the performances in SHAME, even though I didn't care for the movie (McQueen's HUNGER is so much better). At any rate, it's not the kind of stuff that the Academy cottons to, so I sorta wasn't surprised that they left it out of the mix. The anger portrayed by fans of AWARDS DAILY towards this "snub" seems rather juvenile. As fans of the Oscars, weren't you all rather expecting this? (You have followed the Oscars for some years now, haven‘t you? And you‘ve read INSIDE OSCAR by the late and sorely lamented Mason Wiley and Damian Bona, right? You know, Sasha is a fan of these guys...)

On this note, I want to highlight that Sasha Stone has faulted the Academy for not recognizing movies with sexuality this year. But she champions 2011's SHAME and DRAGON TATTOO as, I guess, bastions of coital coupling (I can't remember any other memorable sex scenes from any other late 2010/all-of 2011 movies). Even with the wonderful Rooney Mara in my bed, I wouldn’t think I was having the best sex ever. Her rotating atop Daniel Craig was revenge rape, in some ways; Craig's character was kinda tied up the first time around and not really totally willing, and he easily forsakes her at the end (which makes Fincher's mostly boring mystery movie much more memorable, 'cause the endlessly fascinating Lizbeth Salander is ultimately totally fine with that, and I frankly think that this is what Sasha Stone like most about this actually pretty stuffy, exposition-heavy murder mystery). But even in the sexiest of 2011 movies, there was no happy fucking like in, say, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (which should have won Best Picture in 1988; surely we can all agree that most fucking is performed with happiness at least on SOME level). Oh, I take that back: the beginning of BRIDESMAIDS, with Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm. Sexiest scene of the year. At any rate, the Academy may sometime tolerate on-screen fucking, but they most probably ain't gonna like it if it's done as a sideshow rather than as a plot point (DELIVERANCE is possibly the only on-screen ass-fucking that was deemed okay, I guess because it branded shitty American Southerners forever as perverts and it thus landed as a universally appealing horror/revenge story; by the way, those were 70-year-olds who voted that movie a Best Picture Oscar nomination in 1972).

So on to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Well…come on. The apes were great in the movie; the humans were not, and movies made by humans will always be about humans, even if the most fascinating ape in RISE is portrayed--very well, with indeterminable SFX help--by a digitally-bedotted human in front of a green screen.

Okay. So this leaves THE HELP and HUGO to attend to. I like THE HELP more than some people did upon its summertime release. But I don’t remember such impassioned support for THE HELP on AWARDS DAILY before Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer began amassing awards for their performances. I genuinely liked the movie (I was surprised, actually) and thought from the beginning that the Spencer-Davis group was the key to THE HELP's success both artistically and financially. At AWARDS DAILY or IN CONTENTION, I certainly didn’t see as many cheers for Davis all throughout this year as I did for the comparatively little-seen Andy Serkis in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. By the way, I add as a throwaway: neither AD nor IC appreciated what to me is obviously the most important movie of 2011, Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE. It was, at best, a prickly nuisance to them since the Cannes Palme D'or win. Question: When Malick's film finally prevailed as a Best Picture nominee, why wasn't it these sites' cause celebre? Because it was homework, and homework is never fun. Unless it's another kind of homework, where you get to wear funny glasses...

So now only HUGO is left as the last bastion of hope for many of the internet’s Oscar lovers because [A] of Scorsese's now-brand-name, [B} because of its sly fantasy elements, and [C] because of 3D, which some "mavericks" now think of as a kind of hinky New Frontier.

Here, I veer off topic. At 45, I guess I'm now an old man (which is a ridiculous statement unto itself, because you don’t know me, and I'm probably wilder than you are, but I'll leave it at that). So all the 2012 nominees, for the most part, are softball throws, in AD fans‘ views. Well, can I posit something?

The people who are nominating movies for the Oscars these days aren't hailing from the 1930s. Most of them now are coming from the 1960s and 1970s--the golden era that we all love and look to as our inspiration. It's very common for people who are younger film fans to blame the perceived lameness of Oscar nominees on the old farts; kids did it in the 1970s, and I‘ll bet they did it in the 1950s, too. But (and here's the unsettling revelation for you guys): one day, all you reading this will be old farts, too. And when this happens, I guarantee you'll be tired of seeing anal rape, crushed heads, and painful dry-balled orgasms as movie milestones. This stuff will be old hat and you’ll see it for what it is: education about how awful the world is for people who are unfamiliar with suffering because they just recently came out from under their parents protective wings (most people under 25 these days didn‘t see their first R-rated movie until they were 18 or so; here, we get into a whole can of worms I‘m not gonna open unless somebody asks). With the lack of love for Hazanvicius' sweet THE ARTIST on sites like AWARDS DAILY--and it’s a movie which, Sasha and Ryan and whoever, you can all say you LIKE it all you want, but you're clearly not on its side--I see that this year's inevitable Oscar winner is looked upon as being a chintzy choice. I really believe that the cool crowd thinks it's a cop-out. And I think you’re all cheating yourselves.

What's most interesting about THE ARTIST is that it's about a film star that thinks he's a master of the form, and then the form changes on him. Right now, for all filmmakers, the form is changing on THEM as well. Even the 70-or-so-year-old Scorsese--40-something Hazanavicius's most ironic competitor--has had to reconsider what he needs to do to stay current--hence, HUGO. It makes me very mad to see people label THE ARTIST as being gimmicky. This is astounding, actually. There were 30+ years of insanely incredible silent movies (which many die-hard film fans look at as being a chore to watch, by the way). Meanwhile, the first 3D movie was BWANA DEVIL in 1952; the process gave people headaches in spite of KISS ME KATE, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and DIAL M FOR MURDER and, by the early 1960s, it was seen as a “gimmick”; the only somewhat “modern” 3D movies I remember watching were ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3D, and PARASITE. From the early 80s to the mid-2000s, the process was virtually dead.

Okay. So now (at most) the 20-year herky-jerky life of present-day 3D is supposedly okay (even though it reduces the screen’s brightness, still gives some people headaches and still has not mastered the concept of true depth, HUGO included). So now the much loved HUGO is nominated. It’s true: cinematographer Robert Richardson and director Martin Scorsese indeed do something new with the “gimmick.” But I argue: Where is the story? It gets lost. It’s as lost as Hugo is. In fact, Hugo Cabret himself is lost in the story, because the film itself really cares about George Melies. But this tale’s in a movie called HUGO, not MELIES. At least you can say THE ARTIST is about what it’s about. You cannot say that about HUGO.

I find myself wondering if the lack of love for THE ARTIST on AWARDS DAILY (and all the way around the net) is really about an attempt by a generation to stake a claim for its own “modern” modes of thought. Is this an egotistical pine for identity.

I now ask you to come with me on a journey, to indulge me and let me suggest a “happier” alternate Oscar history, from 1980 onward (and, I‘ll admit, even this is subjective on my part, but I use the IMDB as the great equalizer, with few exceptions)…

1980: RAGING BULL (IMDB #4, with THE SHINING #1)
1982: BLADE RUNNER (IMDB #1, with E.T. #4))
1985: BRAZIL (IMDB #5, with BACK TO THE FUTURE #1)
1990: GOODFELLAS (IMDB #1, with HOME ALONE #3)
1995: TOY STORY (IMDB #5, with SE7EN #1)
1999: FIGHT CLUB (IMDB #1, with THE MATRIX #3)
2000: MEMENTO (IMDB #1, with GLADIATOR #2)
2002: CITY OF GOD (IMDB #2, with SPIDERMAN #3)
2010: INCEPTION (IMDB #1, with BLACK SWAN #4)

Nolan: 4 (Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception)
Scorsese: 3 (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed)
Spielberg: 3 (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan)
Cameron: 3 (The Terminator, Titanic, Avatar)
Fincher: 2 (Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Jackson: 2 (LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring, LOTR: Return of the King)
The Coens: 2 (Fargo, No Country for Old Men)

Believe me, this took an hour or two to put together, and does not reflect my personal taste. So why did I go to this much trouble? Because I wanted to construct a kind of Best Picture history I thought many people (here on the web, at least) could go along with. I bet that, if these were the past winners, no one commenting on AWARDS DAILY or on IN CONTENTION would be complaining about the unfairness of the Oscars. They’d think all was right with the world, and that film history was marching on, ON, onward, forward and beyond--HA-YAAA! I say this because all of these movies (and their seconds, as portrayed here) are the most talked-about titles of the past 30 years, on the web and amongst real-life skin jobs (although things get much murkier when we hit the 2000s--who‘s talking about INTO THE WILD?). By the way, even though they don’t match up number by number, I will not go into the details of how I picked each title. I leave that for the reader to figure out for themselves. Let it be known that I really tried to be fair. Anyway, you have to admit, this would be a pretty populist list; there's a lot of multiple choices here over 31 years; in fact, in that time, according to this lineup, they'd only be 11 directors who didn't own these names listed above. So why aren't this year's Michel Hazanavicius or last year's Tom Hooper considered adventurous choices? Ummm...I dunno..I guess because they're adventurous choices?

Okay, forget out of 31 titles, only about four of these movies are NOT about some sort of violence, death, fighting or all-out action (CINEMA PARADISO, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, TOY STORY, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND). Of those, only one is a soft-hearted exercise, really (CINEMA PARADISO remains, amazingly, an incredibly deeply loved film, even though it‘s in Italian; it, too, is a fantasy about cinema's innocent beginnings). Two others are semi-romantic animations, and another is a darkly romantic sci-fi story. To be complete: TITANIC is the chronicle of a disaster, so violence trumps the romance (most people cite the sinking of the ship as the movie's strong point); and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION sports the admittedly softened horrors of prison life (and really the harder PULP FICTION is the movie of that year…but where is the internet love for the adorable, black-and-white ED WOOD, which was the TRUE Best Picture of that year? At #13, that's where--actually, it's surprising and hopeful it's even that high up on the love-o-meter.

So if this alternate Oscar history I'm posing were the case, would many now be arguing about how it’s time for a kindly little movie like THE ARTIST to win the Best Picture award? Who knows? I hope scads would be doing so...but I'd doubt it. I think it'd be a case of "Meet the new boss...same as the old boss."

For a clichéd better or worse, I admire the Oscars, always, for what they try to do. They try to underline what’s best in us all. I love their attention to each individual artist. But, outside of that, they’re not only about trying to define the best movies of the year (which they rarely do); they are trying to define who we hope and wish we are as people. This, in some ways, makes them notable as an event and a reward. I’ll agree that they are often wrong. But I’ll always defend the Oscars, always, as a snapshot of where the movie industry hopes it is (artistically, financially, philosophically) at the moment the nominations are announced (the nominations are more important than the winners, by the way).

Even so, about 15 years ago, I decided there was no hope of my total adoration of a body that chose as it so often does (ROCKY over NETWORK? No way). You can see what I thought should have won Best Picture each year HERE. For my part, I have agreed with the Academy, in its entire history, nine times: GONE WITH THE WIND (39), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (62), THE GODFATHER (72), ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (75), ANNIE HALL (77), THE DEER HUNTER (78), UNFORGIVEN (92), SCHINDLER’S LIST (93), and MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004). So I long ago made peace with the fact that a movie like, say, BLUE VELVET, or for that matter, THE TREE OF LIFE, is never going to win Best Picture. I think MIDNIGHT COWBOY was about as close to that wackiness as we’re ever going to get.

I love the Oscars, so-called warts and all. I love what they get right, and what they get wrong. What they get right MAKES me love what they get wrong. Those who say it's not a game are mistaken. It IS a game; it’s a game designed to make us love movies--even those movies that are NOT on thie final list, because finally it gets us to consider, first of all (at least, nowadays) whether any given title WILL be on the final list or not.

I think the inevitable 2012 win of Michel Hazanavicius’ THE ARTIST is extraordinary. It’s not my favorite movie of the year (THE TREE OF LIFE, UNCLE BOONMEE, MELANCHOLIA, MONEYBALL and A SEPARATION best it, I believe). But THE ARTIST, without uttering more than one sentence, says a lot more than people give it credit for. It’s a silent movie that’s about the switchover to sound. That it’s silent doesn’t make it “gimmicky;” it makes it creative, and loving. If the viewer doesn’t like silent movies, it’s not the movie’s problem. THE ARTIST is about change; it’s even a movie that deserves to be seen on 35mm, but because a lot of 35mm houses can’t take it (because they don’t have 1:33 lenses), it’s ironically largely being shown digitally (which, by the way, accounts for its smaller release and resultantly small box office figures stateside). THE ARTIST is truly about the present-day switchover from 24 FPS film to digital, and it is also about how we have to embrace it, whether we like it or not. It’s a movie of this exact time, and this is why it deserves to win Best Picture. That, and it’s incredibly charming and doesn’t have anal rape, crushed heads, and painful, dry-balled orgasms at its center. In a way, as John Goodman says at the end, "It's perfect."

Finally, I think it’s extremely interesting that HUGO is an American movie about French silent films, and THE ARTIST is a French movie about American silent films. To me, that says that fans of HUGO think it’s cooler to say that they love silent films, as long as they’re short and fantasy-oriented, like Melies’ otherworldly works. But it also says that they’re not willing to sit through a long-form silent about people who are not conjuring spirits, doing magic tricks, and tripping to the moon. In these viewers’ worlds, George Valentin deserves so much more to be where the downtrodden George Melies finds himself as Scorsese's movie begins. But that's what I call kicking a dog when he's down...


Mark Johnson said...

I loved this post. Even though I am one of those guilty of loving what Hugo does over what The Artist does. Both will most likely end up in my top 5 of the year when all is said and done. So I would say that I am a fan of both. Why I loved Hugo more is hard to explain. It just "reached" me the way Cinema Paradiso did. It reminded me of how LONG I have loved movies. The desperation and wonderment of discovering what the automaton's hidden secret was, only to discover a new mystery behind the old, miserable man selling trinkets in the train station absorbed me completely. I wept at several scenes in the film, especially at the end when Melies is reborn at the screening of his films to a new audience. I think the opening cut from the working clock gears into the city streets of Paris at night was nothing short of brilliant, as was the library scene as they discovered who Papa George really was.
What's great about The Artist is its charm, and its actors - which is why I have Dujardin winning over Clooney (he's the best part of their favorite film). I agree with everything else you mentioned about its importance and how it reflects the changes in filmmaking not only of that silent era, but of today as well.
I, too, love the Oscars and accept that the film I want to win most often never does. I will find consolation in smaller prizes such as cinematography (Go Lubezki!!), Lead Actress, and Art Direction this year. You just have to find something to root for if unhappy with the big prize.
Great piece. I enjoyed reading it and share a lot of your sentiments.

Joseph Aisenberg said...

This was a good, fascinating article, though I think personally I'd prefer there to be a lot more anal rape and bone crunching in the Oscar picks; unlike Mark Johnson, heart warmers like Cinema Paradiso have really gotten on my nerves since I was a teen. And unlike you, as I have aged, or ripened as some might say, I have grown less and less able to stomach the heaps of creamed pathos and the banal twanging of heart strings that continues to rile up the back aisles century after century, much to my disbelief; merely the thought of these kinds of pictures roils my insides (and this is why I have not bothered with films like The Artist and ,especially, Warhorse). I do try to catch some of the nominees from time to time, but I usually don't even like those. There Will Be Blood I thought was slow and muddled. No Country For Old Men seemed like an artsy Terminator; I spent the whole time wishing the movie would just hurry up and end since the theater was freezing and the characters (despite Josh Brolin's excellent performance) were nil. I'm so far out of it I would have preferred films like Happiness to get recognized, or Molly Shannon in The Year of The Dog, a marvelous little film no one ever talks about. The Planet Terror half of the Grindhouse films was, I thought, the best film I saw that year! Sean Penn should have been recognized for his great performance in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. To me the Oscars just represents a buzz machine. First it's one thing, then another. The critics get into a kind of group think, and now increasingly audiences are getting into the act with their own kind of group think, trying to demand that blockbusters like the ponderously dull and actually rather corrupt Dark Knight be honored not only with millions of dollars but gauche awards as well. So I guess I'm sort of on the sides of those who are hopeful for films like Shame and Drive. And I'm not sure that I would agree with you that the dark depiction of sexuality in such movies is somehow not sexual in the way you have generalized, since you could just as easily say the pristine white sheets, soft lenses and soft music that passes for romance in most pop films is about as real as The Sound of Music (frankly movies still haven't solved the sex problem yet, though I thought Michelle Williams did lots of lovely nudity entirely in character in Blue Valentine, good as far as its performances went). But Rise of Planet of The Apes? Really? Come on guys. I did not deign to see it because of the hordes of CGI Apes on show in trailers...and because I'm supposed to believe James Franco as a brilliant Doctor? He wasn't even a brilliant drug dealer in Pineapple Express! If I'm expected to buy into B movie premises than I demand a dripping B-movie hunk in glasses to show he's smart to fill the bill! You know, Like when they need a gorgeous doctor to make a brain device in that J-Lo dreams-of-a-serial-killer vehicle of some years ago. Now that's how you do an implausible professional! Just see Project Nim and skip Apes. My point is that you may be misunderestimating the hipness of the critics you critique. All right, that didn't quite make sense but you know what I mean. After all is any movie like Hugo, that can be compared to Cinema Paradiso as Mark Johnson did really hip? In sum, I do, Dean, agree with you about Gone With the Wind.